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Legal experts see strong murder case against Van Dyke

Clearly, Cook County prosecutors have their “Exhibit A.”

Thirteen seconds of silent video portray Laquan McDonald jerking in the street amid puffing clouds of debris as Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke fires 16 rounds at the teenager, Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney William Delaney told a judge Tuesday.

But if prosecutors take the rare murder charge filed against a Chicago cop for on-duty conduct to trial, the actions of Van Dyke’s fellow officers could be just as significant, said Richard Kling, a clinical professor of law at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Of at least eight officers on the scene, prosecutors say only Van Dyke pulled a trigger. 

“That’s powerful,” Kling said.

Kling and other legal experts cautioned Tuesday that it’s difficult to judge the case against Van Dyke without viewing the prosecutors’ key piece of evidence — a gut-wrenching video of McDonald’s death, which was released late Tuesday.

But most said prosecutors seem to have a powerful case against the 37-year-old Chicago cop who claims he feared for his life when he repeatedly shot McDonald. Defense attorney Steve Greenberg said that’s a claim Van Dyke has no choice but to make.

“That’s his only defense,” Greenberg said.

Van Dyke was charged Tuesday in the fatal October 2014 shooting of 17-year-old McDonald, who was shot in his scalp, neck, chest, elbow, forearm, leg and back. The shooting was captured on a police dashcam video not made public until late Tuesday.

Cops had been called to the Archer Heights neighborhood on a report of a man with a knife. They found McDonald, who had PCP in his system and popped a police car tire with a 3-inch folding knife. But prosecutors said he had a “glazed” look in his eye and never advanced toward Van Dyke.

Van Dyke’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, claims the video does not tell the whole story. 

Ralph Meczyk, another longtime defense attorney, said the case against Van Dyke is defendable — the officer could claim he was “terrified” and driven by adrenaline. But Meczyk said Van Dyke must testify and explain “what went on inside his head.” 

Others pointed to the number of shots Van Dyke fired16 in roughly 15 seconds. Veteran defense attorney Michael Ettinger said simply, “that’s not defendable.”

Herbert, Van Dyke’s lawyer, previously worked as a Chicago cop. Last month, he defended a veteran officer also caught on a silent video using excessive force. A federal jury convicted Aldo Brown, who testified he was “very, very scared” when he punched and kicked a convenience store worker during an arrest three years ago.

Prosecutors relied heavily on surveillance video from the store and prevailed, despite Herbert’s pleas for jurors to put the images in context.

Terry Ekl, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney who represented a bartender beaten by former Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate in 2007, said video of the attack on his client became a critically important piece of evidence.